They wear snazzy disguises. They have neato gear. They drink their martinis shaken. From Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel to Rudyard Kipling’s Kim to the novels of John le Carré, who died last year, spy stories have enjoyed consistent appeal across generations. But how do these classic, even nostalgic, stories maintain their appeal in an ever more complicated world?
In a particularly difficult year, when a global pandemic vies for attention with one geopolitical crisis after another, espionage stories, editors say, provide a much-needed diversion, an escape to a world where the good guys (almost) always win.
“Spy novels have excitement, fear, anxiety,” says Vicki Crumpton, executive editor at the Revell/Baker Publishing Group, which in November will publish Natalie Walters’s Lights Out, the first entry in a Christian suspense series, this one starring a CIA analyst. “You’re reading from the safety of your home, but you’re still getting action and adventure.”
For many readers, the continued appeal of the spy genre lies in its comforting glitter and shine, says Lee Harris, executive editor at Tordotcom. In March 2022, the publisher will release Sylvain Neuvel’s space-race thriller Until the Last of Me, the second in the author’s Take Them to the Stars trilogy. Harris adds that even as spy novels satisfy readers’ craving for glitz, they can also shade in the granular details of espionage.
“There’s a little part in all of us that thinks we’d make a great spy,” he says. “Hollywood has glamorized it so much. We don’t think about the actual work, but about the champagne and cocktails.”
Other readers flock to spy novels for the mesmerizing agents themselves, according to Jessica Case, deputy publisher at Pegasus Books. In February, Pegasus will publish Alan Judd’s A Fine Madness, a historical spy novel in which Christopher Marlowe, the alluring bad-boy rival to Shakespeare, serves as an agent for the queen’s chief spymaster, Francis Walsingham. “In a good spy novel, you always have a charming, charismatic protagonist,” Case says. “Spy novels don’t rely on the grizzled, damaged PI.”
The appeal of the genre goes beyond chilled cocktails and dapper protagonists, however. Spy novels bring readers into the nerve center of the world power, and for all their nostalgic satisfaction, they seek to document how the global order is changing.
“The romance of international espionage gives us something that’s missing in the contemporary geopolitical world,” says Brian Tart, president and publisher at Viking. “It raises the question, ‘What would you do for your country?’ A private detective or a cop—that’s a personal story. But a spy story has a larger theme.”
In November, Viking will publish Ken Follett’s latest, Never, which features a female American president navigating tensions with China and a spy infiltrating the Islamic State. The book explores one of the “great big themes of spy thrillers,” Tart says. “How do you stop a world war? Or can you?” PW called the book a “powerful, commanding performance from one of the top writers in the genre” in its starred review.
Tom Colgan, editorial director at Berkley, agrees that spy novels offer a window onto the inner workings of power. “It’s a complicated world,” he says. “Espionage books give readers a look, real or not, behind the curtain. How are the levers being pulled? Parts of the way the world works are opaque to us. Spy novels give you the feeling that you now know something you didn’t know before.”
Berkley’s forthcoming Ted Bell novel, Sea Hawke (Dec.), offers an example. The book follows gentleman spy and MI6 legend Alex Hawke as he fights antidemocratic countries while on a round-the-world sailing trip with his teenage son.
In Tom Rosenstiel’s The Days to Come (Ecco, Nov.) a billionaire entrepreneur turned U.S. president wrestles with the ghosts of his past, unveiled by a malicious cyberattack, and tries to save both the environment and a country that is split down the middle. Assistant editor Norma Barksdale sees real-life parallels as key to making spy stories ring true.
“Spy fiction is one of the most intriguing genres,” she says. “There are always endless variations to play off of, because politics and the relationships between countries worldwide are always changing. I see readers getting frustrated with contemporary literature that exists within a bubble, that ignores the major facts of our world.”
Helga Schier, editorial director at CamCat, has a unique perspective on stories about global politics, having grown up in Germany during the Cold War. In March the publisher will release her acquisition The Wayward Assassin, the second in a series by former CIA analyst Susan Ouellette. The book follows its protagonist as she chases a female Chechen terrorist in a political landscape shaped by both the Cold War and the “war on terror.”
“When characters are risking their lives for the greater good of their nation, the stakes couldn’t be higher,” Schier says. “During the Cold War, we looked at two diametrically opposed societies, two groups of spies with the same motivation. Now motivations may not be political, but religious, more emotional.” Such changing motivations, she adds, raise more complex questions. “Do we take revenge? What do we take revenge for?”
If anything’s certain, it’s that the spy genre will endure, adapting to a changing world one shaken martini at a time.
Liz Scheier is a writer, editor, and product developer living in Washington, D.C. Her memoir Never Simple will be published by Henry Holt in March 2022.
Read More From our Mysteries and Thrillers 2021 Feature:
Mysteries and Thrillers 2021: When Crime Goes to the Country
A slew of forthcoming novels set in rural spaces and small towns pose spine-tingling questions about what we want, and what we get, when we retreat from the world.
Mysteries and Thrillers 2021: First-Time Offenders
Readers looking for fresh blood, rejoice: there’s plenty to be found in this season’s mystery, thriller, and crime debuts. From a stolen Stradivarius to a Burmese python–obsessed party girl, these first-time authors deliver enticing works.
Mysteries and Thrillers 2021: Politics Is Murder
These mystery and suspense novels set in and around the White House threaten both individuals and geopolitical stability, and there’s always someone willing to kill to keep them hidden.
The White Noise of the South: PW talks with Stacy Willingham
In Stacy Willingham’s thriller 'A Flicker in the Dark' (Minotaur, Jan. 2022), a convicted killer’s daughter grapples with her father’s legacy, and with her terror as young girls begin disappearing, once again, from her Louisiana hometown.
True Crime 2021: What Makes Them Tick?
After the murder of seven-year-old Susie Jaeger in 1973, many tales of criminal profiling, including 'The Silence of the Lambs' and the Netflix series 'Mindhunter' reflect the investigative methods that helped capture her attacker.
True Crime 2021: Catch Her If You Can
These books tell the stories of women who used the gender bias towards them to their advantage in conning the one percent at their own game.
Crime Wave: PW Talks with Joseph Knox
Joseph Knox’s 'True Crime Story' (Sourcebooks, Dec.) plays with genres—both as a postmodern crime novel that reads like a case file and as an examination of the fascination with true crime itself.
True Crime 2021: Once upon a Crime
Forthcoming true crime books include studies of persuasive inmates, a primer on poison, and a look at one of the most infamous serial killers of all time that puts his victims at the forefront.
Mysteries & Thrillers 2021: YA Thrill Seekers
Teens are clamoring for suspenseful page-turners.